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Colorado voters appear to reject effort to water down governor’s emergency powers

Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage
Gov. Jared Polis speaks in support of a health care bill at the state Capitol in 2019.

Colorado voters do not appear to have embraced a conservative-led effort to give the state legislature the final say over how to spend legal settlements, transportation dollars and emergency aid from the federal government.

With nearly 1.1 million ballots counted on Tuesday evening, the unofficial results showed more than 56% of voters rejecting Amendment 78. It needed to pass with at least 55% approval because it aimed to change the state constitution.

Its likely failure means the governor and other branches of government will keep their power to spend what are known as custodial funds, or money that does not come directly from state taxpayers.

The most significant source of custodial funds is emergency aid from the federal government, which has been spent on wildfires and other disasters like the pandemic.

Amendment 78 was written by conservatives who blasted Democratic Gov. Jared Polis last year for spending hundreds of millions of dollars of coronavirus relief money without getting approval from lawmakers.

They specifically pointed to his decision to spend nearly $1 billion of emergency money on public schools.

While they didn’t necessarily fault the governor for the programs the money supported, they raised questions about his ability to spend such a large sum without public hearings or a vote from the legislature.

“You might agree with this governor. What do you think about the next governor having that power?” Amendment 78 author Michael Fields asked during the campaign.

But opponents feared Amendment 78 would slow down the government’s responses to major disasters.

“You do not want these funds tied up in partisan bickering at the state legislature,” said Scott Wasserman, who leads the left-leaning Bell Policy Center in Denver. “I think it will bog down the legislature. I think it will lead to more partisan bickering. And then ultimately what they'll do is, is reduce people's confidence in in the state getting business done.”

When the results started coming in Tuesday, Fields said those concerns likely resonated with voters, especially during the ongoing pandemic.

"It's fresh on people's minds," he said. "There there was some concerns about how quickly money could be allocated under this new process. So I think that factored in" to the vote.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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